This is the story of how Midtown Athletic Club located in the American state of New York has for more than forty years used generosity to build strong community connections. It is written by Ray Algar, founder of Gymtopia.
I have long been interested in how connected and rooted a club is within its immediate community. When a health club opens in a neighbourhood, it plugs into both its infrastructure and community of people. It can be likened to a symbiotic (from Greek – ‘living together’) relationship as found in nature. When I look at some of the world’s most remarkable health club brands, I often discover a strategic intent that they play a proactive part in the prosperity of the community; they are not just there harvesting its resources. They forge a reputation for compassion and generosity and over time become an influential, valued and integral part of the community. So this month, I want to share the story of how Midtown Athletic Clubs in the United States has embraced a strong sense of corporate citizenship and a wider definition of community to enable its clubs to flourish even as the competitive landscape intensifies. In just five years time, this privately owned business celebrates its 50th anniversary so I believe there is a lot we can learn from this mature brand.
A three-generation club company
The Schwartz family founded its first club, the Midtown Tennis Club in Chicago, in 1970 with a clear and simple everyday mission ‘bringing out the best tennis player in you’. Founded by Alan Schwartz and his father, Kevie, they were passionate about tennis and used the club as a vehicle to help grow the game. The company expanded and during the 1980’s began adding fitness areas to its tennis clubs. Steven Schwartz, Alan’s son, joined in 1987 to help position and grow what has become the Midtown Athletic Club brand. Today, there are eight Midtown Athletic clubs operating in what Steven Schwartz describes as the ‘upscale sports resort’ segment. Its second club, which opened in 1974, is situated in the city of Rochester, New York State (92 miles east of Niagara Falls) and earlier this year received IHRSA’s Outstanding Community Service Award. Each year IHRSA recognises one club from around the world for the sustained contribution and impact made to the wider community.
The brand promise today
Today the brand’s mission has evolved beyond tennis and now aims to inspire through a promise to ‘movement, community and service’. All of the Rochester club’s charitable activities are driven by its 7,000 members and staff team. ‘We’re a club of people who believe in giving, and nearly every charity or organisation we give to is the beneficiary of a suggestion or request from one of our members’ says Glenn William, the general manager.
This large multi-purpose club comprising around 15,600 square metres (168,000 square feet) of fitness, tennis, pools, spa and retail facilities is a formidable size by international standards, but the extent of its charitable activities is remarkable. This single club contributes to 17 charities and altruistic organisations encompassing more than 275 annual events, which is equivalent to five events a week, every week of the year. ‘There is no cause too big or small for the club to support either through event hosting, sponsorship or in-kind giving’ remarks Glenn William.
One nine-year partnership is with the American Diabetes Association and their ‘Tour de Cure’ bike ride, a mass participation fund raising event held across 40 U.S. states. The Midtown Rochester club spends 10 months organising a one-day ride, which involved 1,800 member and community riders in 2015. The club serves as the official indoor training centre for the Rochester event and provides free weekly sessions for non-members and members. The club’s own cycling team called Chain Reaction/Midtown has grown from nine riders in the first year to around 200 riders in 2015 raising $330,000 over the period for diabetes research and treatment – this year they raised $73,000. Tom DeRoller, the club’s lifestyle director also serves as the Chair of the planning committee for the Rochester Tour de Cure Fundraising Ride. ‘The great thing about the Tour de Cure fundraiser, and all our community service efforts, is that they produce a different dynamic with members, creating a closer member-club relationship’, says DeRoller.
Another more local project is financial support for EquiCenter, a non-profit that provides therapeutic equestrian activities for people with disabilities, military veterans and vulnerable young people. $100,000 has so far been raised through weekend table tennis tournaments and other social events. Recently the club held a management meeting at the centre’s barn so that all managers could experience first-hand the charity’s work.
The club is also a long-term supporter of the area’s only children’s hospital and the Bivona Child Advocacy Center, which supports children who have suffered sexual or physical abuse.
Rather than simply write cheques the club prefers to raise awareness of a charity partner by operating in-club events. Each Thanksgiving Day (a U.S. national holiday held in November) the club hosts Bivona ‘Thanks for Giving’ yoga classes with 100% of the class fees going to the charity. 2015 will mark the eighth year of the partnership. Clearly these are not fleeting acts of ‘charitising’, where advertising the business is the real motivation, dressed up as some superficial and short-lived charitable act. Remember ‘community’ is a core pillar of what the brand stands for.
What is the return on investment?
For all you financially-driven operators eager to understand how all this generosity is feeding the club’s bottom line, look away now. ‘We don’t think about it in terms of retention, or what is good for the business, or the bottom line. We just want to share our knowledge and all of the good things we’re going. It’s about opening your doors and hearts’, says Glenn William. In fact the parent company goes further and donates 10% of the group’s net profit to charity each year.
The Edelman ‘goodpurpose’ 2012 global consumer survey asked what role business should play in positively contributing to societal issues. Fifty-one percent expected companies to be donating a portion of their profits and 50% donating products or services. Four out of ten wanted companies to enable their staff the opportunity to volunteer. This was the fifth annual survey showing a clear trend. Businesses with a strong social purpose were more likely to be recommended, promoted and switched to. Of course clubs have the right to focus wholly on serving their members but I believe the business will be better served, not by being perceived as a gated, but as an open community.